Several posts ago I discussed the appeal of the “changeling” fantasy, where seemingly normal person finds out that they are royalty, or non-human, or in some other way special. I mentioned at the time that while this kind of fantasy is fun to read, it does often create one problem: a fundamental inequality between the special and the non-special people.
The best example of this is the Harry Potter series. In it, Harry and most of the other characters we run into are wizards. They do magic. But since Harry still lives in our universe with a twist, the majority of people in his world are “muggles,” the “non-magic people.” As far as the story shows, and in the minds of all the characters, there is no middle ground between being a muggle and a wizard. You’re either one or other, and that’s determined from the moment you’re born. If you’re lucky, you happen to be magical, but if not, then too bad, you will never be able to do magic no matter how hard you try. Though wizards and muggles often come from the same families, in terms of the individual they might as well be two different species, one of which is significantly, and indisputably, better than the other.
There aren’t very many muggles that figure into the Harry Potter story, and I can see why. In Harry’s world, being a muggle is like being genetically disabled. It’s sad. Fortunately though, Rowling usually doesn’t let us see just how sad. We don’t get to see the pain of growing up as a squib in an all wizard family, or even as a regular muggle in a mixed family, of which I’m sure there are many. Hermione Granger is an only child for a reason, because nobody really wants to imagine what it would be like to grow up as one of her siblings.
To keep us from being too sad for the muggles, Rowling insures that the ones we see the most often look like they deserve to be non-magical. The Dursleys are just mean. Filch the squib is mean. Mrs. Figg is a somewhat silly older woman who likes her cats a bit too much. The owner of the camping ground near the Quidditch World cup is an inconvenient landlord who must constantly be given memory charms to prevent his knowing what’s really going on. Unless they’re squibs, prime ministers, or someone in their family turns out to have powers, the muggles are never allowed to know what’s really going on. They’re just “confunded” and then ignored.
Naturally, some of the meaner wizards look down on muggles, but Dumbledore, one of the better characters in the stories, does not. He says at the end of the second book, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” That is a wonderful statement, and in our world, I believe it to be true. But unfortunately, in Dumbledore’s world, it actually isn’t.
People might say the inequality of Harry Potter is no different from what we experience in everyday life. Some of us are smarter than others. Some of us have the bodies to become Olympic athletes and some don’t. But the difference is that in real life we aren’t permanently divided into sharp categories of ability that our choices can’t move us out of. People with dyslexia have difficulty reading, but with time and effort, most of them do learn to read. There are no “non-reading people.” Short people in general have a harder time playing basketball than tall people, but if they develop their skills enough, many of them can outscore taller players. There are no “non-basketball playing people.” So to me the idea of a universe in which there are magic people and some people who are “non-magic” with no “if”s, “and”s or “but”s, is, in fact, tragic.
The greatest hint we get at this tragedy in the Harry Potter series is near the end when [very minor spoiler alert] Harry learns something we’d already begun to suspect, that his Aunt’s hatred for magic didn’t start out as such. We get a glimpse, a very brief glimpse, of how much she’d originally wanted to be a witch. We hear that she wrote to Dumbledore himself begging him to let her come to Hogwarts too. We didn’t get to hear the actual contents of Dumbledore’s return letter, but I bet the message of it went something like this: Petunia, I’m sorry, but you were never meant to be a witch. Your sister was. It is not your choices that show me what you are, Petunia. It is your abilities. You can never do magic.”
Life is not fair. We all know that. Most of us want to make it fairer though. Which is why I find it paradoxical that sometimes our fantasies are even more unfair than our reality. So this post is just to say, for all those of us who write about supermen, may we remember our muggles.
- Harry Potter, King Arthur and the “Changeling” Myth: The Meaning of “Specialness” in Fiction (mgirouxstories.wordpress.com)